Belarus Opened Prisons to Please USA

A thaw in relations is promised to Alexander Lukashenko

The USA intends to improve its relations with Belarus

The USA highly appreciated Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's latest announcement to release two political prisoners. Washington expressed its willingness to "improve considerably" its relations with Minsk. It's no pure chance that the U.S. reaction to the reconciliatory gesture of the Belarusian leader is so rapid. After the war in Georgia and a drastic deterioration of the U.S.-Russian relations the USA is interested in developing closer ties with Minsk. In this case the contour of the cordon sanitaire near Russia's western border can take real shape.

Wednesday, it was announced that President Lukashenko pardons opposition activists Andrey Kim and Sergey Prasyukevich, whom the USA and the EU considered Belarus' last political prisoners. The two were sentenced to 1.5 and 2.5 years in prison correspondingly for participating in an unendorsed rally of businessmen in Minsk in January and "assaulting on police officers". At the same time the Belarusian authorities confirmed that Alexander Kozulin, who was freed on August 16, was also pardoned by the President.

The opposition activists confessed that the release was an utter surprise and everything was done in hastiness. "They told me that my father-in-law died, then first deputy head of the colony said that I had half an hour to pack my things. It took me ten minutes actually," Mr Kozulin told journalists. "They took me out of the colony building and then released in accordance with the presidential decree, as they put it. I replied that I didn't recognize the decree and I wouldn't sign any documents. They told me they had no documents - only a fax sent from Minsk."

Belarus' opposition explains the release of the activists with the government's desire to make believe it liberalizes the regime ahead of the parliamentary elections.

The USA regarded freeing the three political prisoners an indispensable condition of its overhauling the sanctions it imposed on Minsk last year. At that time Washington drafted a list of Belarusian officials that were denied entrance to the USA (including Mr Lukashenko and his family). Besides, sanctions were imposed on the Belneftekhim concern. So, when releasing the prisoners, Alexander Lukashenko hoped for a U.S. gesture in response.

It need be said that the Belarusian President had previously tried to win over the USA, although he didn't succeed much in it. For example early last year Alexander Lukashenko suddenly claimed that Minsk's Russia-oriented foreign policy was wrong and threatened to charge Moscow for its using Belarus' military facilities and taking advantage of the Belarusian transit route to the Kaliningrad Region. Moreover, he promised to cooperate with "the devil in the West" to provide energy security to his country. However, Mr Lukashenko never succeeded in carrying out his maneuver: Western leaders were reluctant to give him a warm welcome and reminded about previous claims.

This time the USA was quick to react to the reconciliatory gesture of the Belarusian President. Washington stated that the release gives a real opportunity to considerably improve the relations between the USA and Belarus. Deputy State Secretary Aide David Merkel immediately set off for Minsk to reaffirm Washington's position.

Belarus showed its willingness to develop closer ties with the USA after the war in Georgia. Washington must have spotted that Minsk didn't rush to express its solidarity with Moscow. Russia's Ambassador in Minsk Alexander Surikov even had to reproach Belarus' government ("We don't quite understand why the Belarus' government is blissfully silent"), which was followed by Mr Lukashenko's order that his Foreign Office should "make steps to improve the relations with the EU and the USA". Although during a meeting with his Russian opposite number Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi Alexander Lukashenko said that everything was done "in a calm, wise and beautiful manner" in Georgia, Washington might think that the work in the Belarusian direction has good prospects. It holds true taking into consideration the U.S. line to cool its relations with Russia.

Gennady Sysoyev; Vadim Dovnar, Minsk



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